Peter Khalil: I rise to speak on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. My electorate of Wills is one of the most diverse in the nation. The data we have recently received from the 2016 census shows that close to 80 per cent of the people in Wills classify themselves as having culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and 37 per cent of them speak a language other than English.
Since the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection first announced his intention to make changes to Australia’s citizenship laws, my electorate office in Wills has been inundated with questions, genuine fears and uncertainty about these proposed changes. People are afraid, uncertain and frustrated. It’s important to note that many of these fears were a result of the conjecture, hearsay and speculation that came from the proposed changes having been announced long before any bill was available for scrutiny or even put to the parliament. Many people’s fears were confirmed once we had a chance to look at the government’s bill.
I and the Labor Party oppose the bill on the basis of the proposed changes to link the English language test to residency requirements and the government’s dubious claims—some of which we’ve heard from the previous speakers—around national security. Of course, the government should do whatever is within its means to help people learn English. There’s a level of isolation and extra challenges for people in their own lives if their English skills are limited. But that’s about training people. A commitment to training, rather than elimination, is an investment in Australia’s future. Labor is committed to assisting immigrants to obtain a level of English language that allows them to take full advantage of the opportunities and benefits available to all members of the Australian community. That’s why Labor included additional funding of $24 million in our election commitment for the Adult Migrant English Program.
But this bill would mandate that migrants obtain a level of competence in English equivalent to that required to gain entry to many elite universities. That standard of English competency is defined in this bill as level 6 in the IELTS test. This is an absurd proposition. The government is not just sending a message to new immigrants; it is sending a message to all Australians who don’t have university level qualifications that, if the Liberals had their choice, these people would not even be here or that they don’t deserve to be here despite their hard work and contribution to this nation and don’t deserve to be citizens. Impeccable grammar doesn’t automatically make you a good citizen, nor does a university-level English education.
My family, like the families of many people who have contacted me, came from overseas. My family came to this country from Egypt for a better life and looking to contribute to and participate in the fabric of Australia. If the proposed English language testing had been implemented when my parents and grandparents arrived in Australia, none of them would have been allowed in. They worked hard and paid their taxes for over 50 years. They raised their children and never did anything but contribute to the cultural wealth of our country. Their story is not unique. In fact, it’s shared by millions of Australians. Many people who have conversational English may never pass this English test at that level. So our concern is that these changes would develop an underclass of people who will always live here but never have the opportunity to pledge allegiance to Australia and be told that they actually belong.
Are we to deny citizenship to millions of people who would make such a contribution to this nation? Is that what we are saying here? These are potential Australians who deserve to have their voices heard. They deserve equality of opportunity to succeed, not to be told they aren’t educated enough to participate. It is the Aussie ethos of ‘a fair go for all’ that is one of the great strengths of our multicultural society—and not just for those who are skilled enough to pass a university-level test. I have always said, and firmly believed, that our cultural and linguistic diversity is one of our country’s key strengths. This bill will only is serve to tear that fabric, not strengthen it.
Conversational English has served Australia very well. Raising the requirement only serves to isolate and bar so many potential Australians—so many migrants—from becoming productive, contributing Australian citizens as so many millions have done over the past hundred years.
I come to the second egregious amendment, which could see an additional four years wait placed on those who live in Australia as permanent residents seeking citizenship. It is what the government has described as ‘a need for further integration’, and we’ve heard some of these arguments from the previous speakers. How can delaying someone’s pledge of allegiance to Australia be beneficial? Of course it won’t. It only further isolates that individual from Australian society. They live here and are good enough to pay their taxes, good enough to raise their families, good enough for the government to accept their taxes and good enough for other Australians to accept their contributions to their community but not good enough to be a citizen. You’ve got to wait another four years because apparently you haven’t fully integrated.
When someone’s already been living here for multiple years—for example, three years on a work visa and then 12 months as a permanent resident—making someone wait an additional four years before they pledge allegiance to Australia cannot be good for national security or social cohesion. It can’t be good for the person or their sense of belonging to this country either. I know the doctors, the teachers, the parents, the students, the children, the retail workers—real people with real lives whose clock on the path to citizenship has been reset—are more frustrated with the government than ever. It is impossible for them to plan for their futures, to travel or to raise their kids with stability when the rug is being pulled out from underneath them.
As an example, I recently met with a couple in my electorate who are both working as doctors after having moved to Australia from India nine years ago. One doctor submitted their application prior to 20 April, the arbitrary date announced by this government to reset the clock. The other submitted the application after that date. So now they sit in limbo, waiting to find out what their pathway to citizenship actually looks like, having had the goalposts suddenly shifted. Of course, one family member—one doctor—can move to the citizenship ceremony within months. The other will have to wait four years. I can assure you that the government’s changes are already proving to only further isolate, not integrate, individuals and their families.
The government is using fear to make their case as is often their wont. They make the dubious argument this is a matter of national security. Of course the Labor Party and I are absolutely committed to keeping Australia and all Australians safe. I have spent most of my career working in foreign policy and national security, and we have consistently stated our bipartisan commitment to doing so—for example, through the work of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and through the support of other legislation in this place. But national security legislation comes on the advice of national security agencies, and we have seen no evidence or received any briefings from the security agencies that the measures proposed in this bill will benefit national security outcomes. In fact, there are some concerns from some community groups that the measures proposed in this bill will alienate sections of our community, not integrate them.
It must be said that, if there’s an element of national security in this debate, there are real concerns this bill will be detrimental to national security outcomes. Leaving people in limbo as to their final status without the prospect of ever being given the opportunity to pledge allegiance and gain citizenship does not promote social cohesion. If there are legitimate national security concerns that this bill resolves, of course they should be considered, but this advice must come from the experts in our national security agencies.
And here is the kicker: those who apply for citizenship who are permanent residents are already here. They’ve already undergone rigorous character tests and security checks to come here. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. If they are a security risk—if this is a national security issue—they should not be living here at all. If there are problems with this process, the government should be up front about them with us and focus on preventing people who present security risks from coming here in the first place, not isolating already-contributing members of our society and their families. I will give you a cynical interpretation, Mr Deputy Speaker: to me and, I think, to many of us on this side, this looks like a cynical attempt to appease the far right of the Liberal Party; a further power grab by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, soon to be the super minister for home affairs; and an attempt to placate people like Senator Pauline Hanson on the far right. National security measures should be bipartisan on the whole. The government should not be playing games with this important issue, trying to link it to issues that are related to national security in order to shore up its own politics fortunes and to cover an obsession with the far-right fringes.
I think it is safe to say that this has been an atrociously handled process. It has demonstrated that the government is not genuinely interested in developing a well thought out, practical and consultative policy to ensure the best outcomes for our community as a whole. This is clear in the way this government has been talking about this for months—in vague, opaque terms, demanding that everyone support the measures without even giving detailed proposals. It’s run a sham of a community consultation process, and it won’t even release the findings of that process, of course, being afraid of airing publicly the flaws identified in the package. The government finally presented the bill on 22 June, only two weeks after finalisation of its community consultation process and the submissions that came from that process. It’s actually keeping these submissions confidential. There’s no way of knowing how they factored into the final bill or the thinking behind it, if at all. Despite the claims by the government that it already briefed Labor on the package, many measures in this bill were not flagged in any briefing our frontbenchers received. Given the government’s poor handling of this package, the attempts to stifle public discussion and the complexity of the measures it is proposing, it is important that this bill be considered in detail through parliamentary inquiry so that relevant experts and community groups are able to air their views publicly.
This bill cannot be left unchallenged. It is flawed, it’s inherently unfair and it’s unacceptable, and that is why we oppose it. On behalf of the many people I have met who fear for their futures because of this government’s proposed changes, I say this to the government: we will certainly not yield to you on the basis of a vague, opaque press conference or a deeply flawed and tardily presented bill. I say to the government: enough spin and enough smoke and mirrors on national security. It’s too important to play political games with. Enough isolation and humiliation to hundreds of thousands of migrants to this country who are living in Australia, who are working, who are paying their taxes, who are raising their families and who are, by all definitions, integrated into this country already. They are already integrated. As such, they deserve and I believe they are entitled to have an opportunity to pledge their allegiance to Australia. Most of them would love so much to do so at a citizenship ceremony. All the people I have met and who have come to me over the past few months are committed to becoming Australians and are being denied that opportunity by these proposed changes. They are entitled to make that commitment and to pledge their allegiance to this country they have committed to. We should give them that opportunity. We should give them what we, as Australians, believe in deep in our hearts: a fair go.